‘It felt like a war zone’ – Muslims in Finsbury Park reel at targeting of community

For some locals, Monday’s attack was an inevitable result of rise in anti-Muslim sentiment

Eyewitness video shows a man being arrested by police after mulitple people were hit by a van in London. The vehicle ploughed into worshippers leaving a Finsbury Park mosque, leaving one person dead and several injured. Video: Reuters

 

It was shortly after midnight and still balmy after the hottest day of the year when a white van mounted the pavement on Seven Sisters Road and drove at speed towards a crowd of people. They had just left evening prayers at the Muslim Welfare House across the road after breaking their Ramadan fast.

“They were worshippers coming out of the prayer. A man took ill and they were trying to help him and support him. That’s why there was a large crowd. They were clearly Muslims and the guy was looking to kill as many as he could. So he saw a crowd of people and he drove at speed towards them,” said Toufik Kacimi, the Muslim Welfare House’s chief executive.

By the time Kacimi arrived on the scene, one man had died and other 10 had been injured. The van’s driver, a 48-year-old white man, had already been restrained on the ground by passersby, while an imam told the crowd not to hurt him. He was later arresteed by police. Kacimi described the scene, with bodies on the ground and under the wheels of the vehicle, as one of madness.

“It felt like a war zone. Lots of people, the crowd, nobody understanding what’s going on. A lot of police. It was like you were in a war zone. A terrible scene. I hope it will never happen again and I hope Theresa May will come strongly and do something for us,” he said.

Mona Mohammed lives in the street where the attack took place and she and her eight-year-old son were woken up by the noise. Dressed in a black hijab and abaya, she held her son close as she spoke about how she came to Britain from Somalia 13 years ago to find safety.

“This is the first time I’ve seen this. Last night when I’ve seen it in front of my door, I really got a shock. I didn’t really know what to do but I really got a shock. I don’t really expect this in Britain, having this terror within one month. You know, Manchester, London Bridge, today it’s Finsbury Park. I don’t know what’s going on,” she said.

“I don’t know anything about this man. All I know is that this incident happened on purpose. They know that the Muslim people finish their prayer at 12 o’clock. In that time he came to that area where all the people were standing outside and he hit them on purpose.”

Diverse neighbourhood

A few hours after the attack, the streets near the scene were sealed off, with Seven Sisters Road blocked at one end by three large police vehicles. One of the most diverse neighbourhoods in London, Finsbury Park has a large Muslim community but it is still home to many Irish people, and to numerous other nationalities. It is perhaps best known to outsiders as the home of Arsenal football club, whose merchandise shop wraps around the side of the local Tube station.

“I drive for a living so I’m always in the area,” said Hassan Yassin, a young bearded man wearing a white thobe who often prays at the Muslim Welfare House.

“It’s a lovely community. It’s highly populated by Somalis, it’s highly populated by Moroccans, North Africans and people get along. There’s a lot of non-Muslims here as well. Finsbury Park is known for Arsenal and a lot of Muslim fans watch Arsenal.”

Muslims pray on a pavement in the Finsbury Park area of north London after a vehicle hit pedestrians in the early hours of Monday morning. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images
Muslims pray on a pavement in the Finsbury Park area of north London after a vehicle hit pedestrians in the early hours of Monday morning. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

The Muslim Welfare House is one of a number of mosques in this area, including Finsbury Park Mosque across the road. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Finsbury Park Mosque was associated with radical extremists, including Abu Hamza, who was later convicted of terrorist offences and sentenced to life imprisonment. For more than a decade, the mosque has taken a different direction and is regarded as a model of how to turn away from extremism.

There has been a sharp rise in attacks on mosques and on Muslims since the Manchester bombing last month and Yassin said he saw some signs of heightened security at his local mosque.

“When I went to Friday prayers last week, I saw about three policemen outside the mosque and I thought, okay, maybe that’s needed, maybe the mosque was attacked the day before, or maybe it was just precautionary. At the end of the day, no matter how much security you have, you can never be too safe. As much as we tell each other to be vigilant, or to be cautious, you can never know what’s in a man’s mind. You can never know why they are renting a van, for example. They’re not going to tell you,” he said.

Radicalise right-wingers

Yassin believes that the way attacks such as those in Manchester, Westminster and London Bridge are reported can serve to radicalise white right-wingers and inspire attacks such as that in Finsbury Park.

“What you do is that you push out the narrative that these attacks are actually from Islam and that in its essence is radicalisation. You are radicalising young non-Muslims to hate Muslims. We have been saying for so many years, every attack that happens, it is not Islamic. Muslims have actually fought for this country. Muslims are in the police force. Muslims are in the army. So it’s crazy,” he said.

Yassin did not explicitly blame the media but other Muslims at the scene on Monday complained about the way the Finsbury Park attack was reported. One man suggested that, by reminding the public of the link between Finsbury Park Mosque and Abu Hamza, journalists were suggesting that the community had brought the attack upon himself.

Mohammed, a young man who lives nearby and declined to give his surname, complained that early reports of the attack suggested it might have been an accident.

“Because there was a white guy getting bundled into a van, it’s just an accident. If it was a Muslim guy, if it was a guy with a beard, he would have never survived today, no way. He would have been dead, 100 per cent, he would have been dead. It’s a white guy, let’s take him prisoner, give him a chance, let’s feed him. I don’t care, I don’t wish death on him for a minute. Life is really precious, regardless of what religion you got,” he said.

“You’re always demoralising our name. For what? What have we done to you? Let’s be real. When England plays any team, we support England, mate. Come on, man. We’re Arsenal supporters here, man. You guys don’t see it like that. You just see it as Muslims. And Isis. The media is messed up, man. You lot portrayed us like this. That’s why we’ve got these crazy guys thinking these Muslims killed our f**king people. It’s the hate they’re putting into the people.”